Unfortunately, it seems like we grudgingly resist praising those we love. “Most people feel that criticism works, and they do it for their partner’s good,”says Kathlyn Hendricks, PhD, cofounder of The Hendricks Institute, a conscious-living learning center in Ojai, California. “In fact, it’s the No. 1 relationship killer.” She’s a strong believer in the five-to-one ratio- sharing five positives for every negative- but finds that very few couples really know how to achieve it. “We need to learn how to customize appreciation and find out how our partner likes to receive it: Some like public displays, others like written notes, others respond to gifts and gestures.” Sometimes the most powerful expression of appreciation highlights the habitually overlooked- the things your partner does but doesn’t draw attention to.
Do damage control
Gottman’s research shows that positivity, especially during fights, is one of the strongest predictors of a relationship’s longevity. Even though being affectionate during an argument sounds nearly impossible, therein lies the secret to connubial bliss. Women tend to initiate the exchange, says Gottman, but they do so harshly, launching in with a rebuke that is a general criticism, such as, “You’re so lazy- you never help with the chores.”Rather than attacking your partner’s character, try starting with a situation-specific comment, like, “I get really frustrated when you pile your dishes in the sink.” If and when tensions escalate, that is the time to turn toward your partner, both literally and figuratively, rather than away. Use humor, affection, interest, and empathy to help you connect with what your partner is feeling. Hendricks recommends trying to say something you genuinely appreciate about your partner in that moment, even if the only thing you can come up with is that the person is still with you.
Turn on the attunement
Real appreciation requires a fundamental cognitive shift to see and praise what is, rather than rue what is not. To make this shift, you have to clearly see the emotional backdrop- made up of learned reactions, fears, and inner struggles against which you and your partner act out your relationship. “When we’re able to observe our reactions, we’re better able to modulate them,” says Timothy Stokes, a psychologist and marriage therapist in Boulder, Colorado, and author of What Freud Didn’t Know (Rutgers University Press, 2010). “If we can’t see these reactions, the fight-or-flight response usually takes over.” That’s what Gottman refers to as “flooding” the amped-up feeling when your cortisol lets loose, blood pumps, and face flushes. It’s not a particularly receptive state. The brain, to conserve energy, shuts down, limiting perception and new information. What kicks in instead, says Stokes, is some version of an old, almost primal memory of feeling fundamentally threatened.
For Stokes, the flood of these old emotional memories acts like blinders, getting in the way of our ability to be present with our partner. But once we come to terms with our own hot spots, we also become more aware of when our partner’s reactions seem over the top, hinting at a deeper hurt. “Our assumptions about the situation change, and we can more compassionately tune in to how the other has been hurt.” We learn to sense just how far to dig down and when to move on, navigating the tricky terrain of the heart with heightened awareness and compassion.